Blugold football players ‘raise a fist’ for injustice


Members of the UW-Eau Claire football team take a stance on national inequality. © 2017 Sydney Purpora

By Travis Nyhus, Sydney Purpora, Justin Dade

Paralyzed with fear, 9-year-old Darius Sims stood frozen in place, suddenly staring down the barrel of a gun.

A few minutes earlier he was playing in his friend’s yard a few blocks from home.

Without warning, a police car pulled up in front of his cousin’s car and two male police officers got out. Sims said one of the police officers forced his oldest cousin and a few others from the group to get behind the vehicle, put their hands behind their backs and spread their legs for a drug search. He didn’t believe the police officers had a reason to search them but he was afraid they would go to jail.

Amid the chaos Sims reached in his pocket to get his phone to call his mother and tell her what was going on. As he stuck his hand into his pocket, one of the police officers pulled out his weapon and began yelling at him, telling him to get his hands out of his pockets.

“At that moment, being scared was an understatement,” Sims said. 

Members of the UW-Eau Claire football team take a stance on national inequality. © 2017 Sydney Purpora

This was not the last time Sims said he was illegally searched while living in Chicago. The issue of police brutality and inequality, he said is causing those who won’t stand for inequality anymore to protest, and those highlighted today are African-American athletes.

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire football players are raising their fists in protest during the playing of the national anthem. By joining the cause started by a former National Football League (NFL) quarterback Colin Kaepernick, they hope to create discussion and change moving forward on issues such as police brutality and inequality of minorities in America.

Local athletes join Kaepernick’s cause  

Sims, now a member of the UW-Eau Claire football team, glanced into a sea of Blugold fans seated above him while raising his fist. As he took in the reactions from the loyal supporters of his team, the slow pan of his eyes through the bleachers stopped.

“He was staring at me blatantly,” Sims said.

For what Sims said was about 60 seconds, he and a fan locked eyes as the “Star-Spangled Banner” played.

“He finally just turned away and started shaking his head,” Sims said. To him it is just a sign of disrespect.”

Over the course of a year, football players at the professional, college and high school level have begun following the lead of Kaepernick in protesting during the national anthem.

The NFL reported Kaepernick started by sitting on the bench during the national anthem in the beginning of the 2016 preseason. He continued protesting later on in the preseason and kneeled during the anthem.

The article detailed what Kaepernick said in an exclusive interview after refusing to stand during the national anthem in the Aug. 26, 2016 preseason game against Green Bay.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Since Kaepernick’s protests began, football players around the nation have initiated a protest action to illustrate their opinion of the nation’s state of inequality.

The Blugold football team began participating in protests early in the 2016 season with just a few taking a stance by raising a fist during the national anthem. The number of individuals on the team joining the protest increased as the season moves along, led by Sims, offensive tackle Michael Elem and defensive tackle Jalen Thomas.

Elem said Head Coach Dan Larson addressed the issue last season saying the players could freely express themselves, but they should be fully committed and take the issue seriously. He said the coaching staff hasn’t discussed the issue this season as the protests are a continuation of last year.

A total of ten UW-Eau Claire football players stood with their fists in the air in protest during the national anthem at the 2017 Homecoming game against UW-River Falls on Sept. 30.

Thomas, who joined the protest to start the 2017 season, said because he feels strongly about creating equality he had no choice but to stand by his teammates.

“I feel real strong about equality and what it going on in the country,” Thomas said. “I’m thinking I have to do this, it’s my obligation to.”

While many in the NFL have chosen to take a knee or sit during the anthem, Thomas said the Blugold football players raising a fist isn’t meant to send a different message.

“It’s just a different way to protest,” Thomas said. “My fist, I’m real powerful with it in the air. Putting my fist up is my way of using protest.”

Sims agreed with Thomas and explained why the players participate.

“Raising my fist is to bring awareness,” Sims said. “It’s to let our voices be heard. It’s supposed to get people a little uncomfortable just so they will actually want to hear what we have to say.”

Sims said tension is caused by the relationship between law enforcement and minorities, but those who oppose the protests steer it back to the military to generate support on their side.

Although none of the UW-Eau Claire players have faced issues regarding their participation on the team, the same can’t be said for players at the same level of football across the country. Gyree Durante, a quarterback for Division III Albright College, was reportedly cut from the team for kneeling during the anthem.

Eric Kasper, a UW-Eau Claire professor who studies how pop culture affects American politics, said athletes at universities face a different set of expectations compared to typical students engaging in forms of protest.

“When it comes to college athletic teams, it changes the equation a little bit because it is an endeavor that isn’t open to all,” said Kasper. “An athletic team has certain standards of performance that have to be met, certain academic standards that have to be met and there might be some type of honor code that is enforced.”

If a protest such as this is viewed as conduct unfit for the team by the coaching staff or athletic director, certain actions could be carried out without affecting the player’s rights given by the First Amendment, Kasper said.  

Dan Schumacher, director of athletics at UW-Eau Claire, said the athletic department follows the freedom of speech position outlined by the UW System Board of Regents. As long as the speech follows the outlined policy, players, like all university members, will be allowed to continue to express freedom of speech on campus.

“It is not the opinion of the university,” Schumacher said, “but they are encouraged to exercise their right of freedom of speech.”

Silent protests by the players may continue but for progress to be made, not just words, but action is needed, said Richard Dean, a U.S. Army Veteran and UW-Eau Claire student.

“I think people have to think through, ‘What is the next step?’” Dean said. “Are they going to have to always protest until certain conditions are received? What are those conditions? I think that once you’ve brought awareness to it, the next step is to have some sort of action.”

Sims, who is in school to become a police officer, plans to return home to Chicago to do what he can to solve the issues that started it all.

“I’m doing these things so I can be a part of the change,” Sims said. “I want to be in that position.”

The story behind the issue

The protests in discussion within the last year, including Kaepernick’s, revolve around “racial injustice,” according to the New York Times.

Kaepernick’s anthem demonstration turned into the action of kneeling after he had been contacted by Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawks long-snapper. Boyer wrote an open letter to Kaepernick through Army Times saying he is not offended by what he is doing. Boyer instead suggested they kneel to be “more respectful” while still protesting.

Kasper said every country has a national anthem to cultivate “nationalism, support for the country and to heighten emotion in a positive sense for the people who live in the country.”

It is this construct surrounding the national anthem, he said, that gives the issue of anthem protesting more weight in the public’s eyes.

“One of the reasons why there is such controversy related to this particular issue is because although there are protests that are being engaged in by some of these players for specific purposes,” Kasper said, “other people are looking at these protests and seeing it as disrespecting to the national anthem, disrespecting to the flag as well as a symbol of the United States.”

Kasper explained that the flag is a symbol of the country; however that symbol has different meanings depending on the person. Specifically, he said military veterans don’t all have the same viewpoint on the issue.

Although there is no monolithic position from particular groups, the two viewpoints that are highlighted in the media are those of veterans and families of veterans who feel disrespected by the demonstrations and views from the players who feel they have a right to protest what the flag should stand for.

Those that are opposed to the protests during the anthem argue that it is disrespectful to both the American flag and the military.

“We have seen a number of them (veterans) take to social media or be interviewed by traditional media expressing different viewpoints on this;” Kasper said. “Some seeing this as a sign of disrespect towards people who served their country, put their life on the line and in some cases were killed in action, while others have said this is part of the reason that they were in the military that they were fighting for American freedoms, for people to express themselves.”

However, Dean, a U.S. Army Veteran, doesn’t feel that the protests are disrespectful to those who have served in the military.  

“I don’t look at it that way, I think it is very personal,” Dean said. “I’m actually allowed to render the hand salute to the flag because I’m retired. How he may do that doesn’t affect how I think about the flag or anything like that. There may be a lot of people that don’t have military service that may think it is discriminatory or some sort of negative thing to the flag, I just don’t agree with that.”

Sims said he feels those who oppose the protest are trying to frame the narrative in a way they feel more comfortable with.

“It’s not really about disrespecting the military,” Sims said. “That is what people who feel uncomfortable with the protest try to navigate it towards and take it away from the bigger problem.”

Because the national anthem is played specifically at sporting events, Kasper said athletes are given an opportunity to protest in a way that other celebrities or famous people don’t get.

“It is about the flag, which is supposed to represent certain ideals including equality, so they see it as an entirely appropriate time to engage in that type of protest,” Kasper said.

The national anthem has been sung at sporting events, specifically before NFL games, for many decades, according to PolitiFact. However, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in the article, it wasn’t until 2009 that players in primetime games were required to be on the field during the national anthem.

McCarthy said the protocol for national anthem etiquette is not outlined in the NFL Rule Book, but there is a document called the “Game Operations Manual” that the league hands out to all of the team members. The document is not available online for viewing, though McCarthy told PolitiFact in an interview that “players are strongly encouraged, but not required, to stand during the national anthem.”

Although there has been an increase in the number of national anthem protests recently, black athletes protesting at sporting events has been part of the nation’s history for many years.

The previously mentioned New York Times article reported, two African-American athletes during the 1968 Summer Olympics held in Mexico City were part of one of the first and most famous political protests in sports history.

After being awarded the gold and bronze medals, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two United States track athletes “raised their black-gloved fists to the sky in what was widely viewed as a black power salute.”

The article goes on to state four other instances that affected the national anthem’s history in athletics. One of the stories shared in the piece was that of the well-known National Basketball Association (NBA) player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf who was suspended for one game because he stopped standing for the national anthem starting in the 1995-96 season.

These moments in history depict the progression of demonstrations in response to inequality of race, ethnicity and religion, but they also reveal the nation’s fear of the issue with the possibility of repeating history, according to the article.

Moving Forward

As time passes and protesting the national anthem continues to evolve, finding a resolution to the issue of inequality is becoming more difficult.

A CBS News poll aimed to see what the general public was thinking about the national anthem protests by asking participants to state the reason that players are protesting. The poll allowed respondents to choose as many responses as they wanted in their vote.

Seventy-three percent responded that they feel they are trying to call attention to racism compared to those who don’t. Looking at it as tackling unfair police tactics, 69 percent say the players are using the protests to draw attention to this aspect while 31 percent saying they are not. After comments from Kaepernick and other players protesting, 40 percent of poll responders say the players are trying to disrespect the flag and anthem itself compared to 60 percent saying that is not what the players are trying to do.

The lack of agreement on whether players should be protesting or not paired with the sheer magnitude of it being prevalent in the news has led individuals and large organizations to decide where they stand. The conversation had grown too large to ignore any longer for the very league that Kaepernick used as a medium to get his message across.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a letter to all 32 teams on Oct. 10 informing them that the league was going to get together and discuss a plan to move forward.

Goodell included the following passage in his letter to the franchises, “Like many of our fans, we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem. It is an important moment in our game,” Goodell wrote. “We want to honor our flag and our country, and our fans expect that of us.”

The league stated that it was planning to hold a meeting on Oct. 18 to discuss how they should move forward. League officials, team owners and players were invited to the meeting — including Colin Kaepernick. Though Kaepernick did not attend, 13 NFL players were present for the discussions. Later that day, the commissioner told the press in a news conference that the meeting gave the players an opportunity to effectively communicate their reasons for protesting.

Goodell shared one final stance on the protests after the meetings. His words at a news conference later that day almost mirror his statements written in the letter earlier in the month.

“I think our clubs all see this the same way — we want our players to stand, we’re going to encourage them to stand and we’re going to continue to work on these issues in the community,” Goodell said. “We respect our country, we respect our flag, respect our national anthem. When you look at our clubs and what they do on a daily basis, when you look at our players at what they do and how they participate in that, we all feel very strongly about our country and our pride, and we will continue to do that.”

On Oct. 18, 2017 the NFL reported the “NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear Wednesday the league believes its players should stand during the national anthem, but said the league has no plans to make them do so.”

In a statement released by the NFL, both the league and player’s union stated that there were no changes to the current policy regarding the national anthem (encouraging players to stand, but not requiring it) following the meetings.

While the NFL continues to sift through the issue, other entities have been rather quiet. Whether the NCAA or individual high school athletic associations decide to issue a plan of action remains to be seen.

Kasper said he thinks change stemming from this specific protest will be hard to come by until people attempt to see other people’s perspective.

“I think that really where you have the two sides talking past each other because if you see the flag as solely a symbol of military then it becomes easier to say this is disrespectful toward the military members and what they fought for,” Kasper said. “On the other hand if you see the flag representing other things and you think there are problems in some of those institutions, whether it be law enforcement or the court system.”

As the conversation continues, Kasper said the players’ freedom of speech is not at risk.

“My research, which dovetails with this in this particular issue, is with the first amendment, the freedom of speech and there isn’t in a classical sense a threat to the freedom of speech, in terms of the government isn’t going to come in to arrest somebody for engaging in these protests,” Kasper said.

Kasper suggests it is unlikely that the government would make changes in regard to protesting the national anthem.

By now, the conversation has made its way down to other levels of the game. Local athletes are looking for ways to make a difference to continue to strive for racial equality. With new stories and developments happening every day nationally, local communities like Eau Claire are getting a chance to respond.

Sims prioritizes what individuals can do to promote change, but he said he also believes more things can be done logistically inside larger groups or organizations. At UW-Eau Claire, he is attempting to fully live out what he believes as a member of the military and as a person pursuing police work. Sims believes that training in the police academy is one way that change can be made.

“They can change the police academy a little bit,” Sims said. “Just try to give better teachings of combatives. I feel like background checks should be more in depth. You should be able to get to know how a person really is before they actually get a job to protect somebody else — especially somebody else that isn’t like them.”

Lastly, Sims said he believes that true change could come if individuals take the time to listen and try to comprehend what is shared rather than make judgements on the surface.

“You can try to understand,” Sims said. “You can ask questions, you can become aware, it doesn’t hurt to ask questions.”

In terms of hope for change, Elem is optimistic for what could be to come.

“There’s still hope for change,” Elem said, “(but) it’s going to be a long time. I think it’s all about how you grow up.”

With all that Thomas has observed over the years, he is less optimistic that things will improve at any time in the near future.

“I don’t think there will be change, because I think there will still be people who believe that inequality is not a thing and it doesn’t happen,” Thomas said. “I just would hope for people to just be aware and understand, but I just don’t know if it’ll ever change — ever.”